Tuesday, May 2, 2017

A book of migrations: some passages in Ireland

These days my travel is all on screen or page, in the breif evenings after work, usually on the sofa in my Sydney apartment. The title of this post is that of a library book I found while looking for something else (I love that about library shelves of the old-fashioned kind, shelves you can browse. My current library stores most of its collection in a vault with a robotic retrieval system thats away all the fun of random discovery). This is a book by Rebecca Solint, an American who became an Irish citizen in 1986, lived there for ten years, then returned to write a rumination on, as she says, "the ebb and flow of populations that constitutes invasion, exile, colonisation, emigration, tourism and nomadism." And also home, identity, and the "psychic experiment" that is travel itself.

"Here, most often, is nothing more than the best perspective from which to contemplate there", she writes. The quote that opens her book is from Basho 'Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.'

Here I am, at home, in a city that has never felt welcoming or knowable, on the trail of my own Irish passport, and contemplating my next round of adventures from the lulling comfort of the sofa.

"Ireland delighted me by offering so many stories and circumstances in which individuals and populations were fluid rather than ossfied," she writes, and I thrill to the idea that perhaps this explains everything, my restlesness and endless yearning to be somewhere else. Maybe I am Irish, too.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

London By Bike

They used to be called Boris Bikes
- before he fell from grace
During the fortnight in London I cycled every day. The cycle paths are fantastic. I had two main ways to get into the city from Herne Hill.

One way followed Route 25 and was mostly a stress-free cruisy ride.

The routes are well-marked with signs as well as road markings.

Council bike lockers 

Burgeoning Battersea - shared bus/bike lane

Historic Chelsea Bridge  -
a whole lane just for bikes

Mud-larking time along the Thames

The other option was to join the north-south Cycle SuperHighway at Brixton and ride hard and fast. Why fast? Long straight stretches with a whole lane reserved for bikes, made for flying along. Except that the lane is shared by buses. And there is nothing scarier than looking up and seeing that a double decker bus has pulled up just ahead of you. Oh wait. Scarier than that is when you sense something breathing down your neck, and realise that one of those buses has snuck up behind you and and is coming alongside, so close that you seem to feel it brush the hairs on your legs.

 Actually I think the scariest thing of all on London roads is the other cyclists. Coming home during rush hour, I'd pull up at the lights in the space in front of all the cars marked for bikes, and by the time the lights changed (I love that they turn orange and then green int he UK) I'd hear a hundred click click clicks as shoes all around me slotted back into cleats and the muscles and mamils (middle-aged men in lycra) would be past me and shooting off into the distance.

Brockwell Park
Route 25 took me across Brockwell Park, along deserted suburban streets and past my favorite bakery and cafe, Gail's; across Clapham Common, down past the sprouting of high-rise apartments in Battersea, and over Chelsea Bridge.

Gail's goodies (him too)

Clapham Common 

From the other route I could either head into the City or over Waterloo Bridge and past The Strand where I used to work to Covent Garden and Soho. In busy Brixton, the marked cycle path goes down the laneway with a memorial mural for that Brixton boy, David Bowie; where there were fresh bouquets of flowers being left every day.

London Design Week 2016

It was Design Week in London and also my last weekend. In the courtyard at the V&A they have installed a robotic building machine that was dynamically constructing a super-light and super-strong structure in response to the movement and flow of people around the courtyard, which also is home to a busy cafe.

Described as a Garden Installation, the experimental Elytra Filament Pavilion (in fine architectural-speak!) is designed to

"explore the impact of emerging robotic technologies on architectural design, engineering and making. Inspired by a lightweight construction principle found in nature, the fibrous structures of the forewing shells of flying beetles known as elytra, the Pavilion will be an undulating canopy of tightly-woven carbon fibre cells created using a novel robotic production process. The Pavilion will grow over the course of the V&A Engineering Season in response to data on structural behaviour and patterns of inhabitation of the Garden that will be captured by real-time sensors in its canopy fibres." 
I wish I could see it now - did it respond to me as I moved around taking photos?

Another 2016 Design Week installation is the Serpentine Pavilion, designed by Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG). The Serpentine Gallery has a tradition of inviting an architect of note to design and build a summer pavilion beside the gallery in the Kensington Gardens. This year BIG created what they call "an unzipped wall that is transformed from straight line to three-dimensional space". During the day it houses a café and free family activities and at night it becomes a performance space.

Friday, September 30, 2016

There was a reason I went to Lewes, and that was to visit Charleston Farmhouse.

"Home to the Bloomsbury Group" announces the website, and "The Bloomsbury Home of Art and Ideas".

Let it be said that my idea of a home is a rambling house and garden somewhere in the countryside filled with art and ideas. The Telegraph suggests the Bloomsbury set were a bunch of middlebrow, sex-mad snobs, but says of Charleston that it "promotes a gloriously ramshackle aesthetic which can still be found on a domestic scale right across Britain." So maybe that's what appeals to me. Ramshackle could easily be my style.

"The rooms on show [at Charleston] form a complete example of the decorative art of the Bloomsbury artists: murals, painted furniture, ceramics, objects from the Omega Workshops, paintings and textiles. The collection includes work by Renoir, Picasso, Derain, Matthew Smith, Sickert, Tomlin and Delacroix."

It was a bit of a challenge to get to by bike, but it was worth every bit of effort and made for a lovely day out. I took the train to Berwick first, to visit the Berwick Church which has murals and paintings by Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell and Quentin Bell.

They decorated the tiny simple church during the Second World War, with rural scenes depicting the seasons, religious scenes and floral designs.

Then I followed a little map from the Tourist Office that described a route along lanes, bridle paths and part of the South Downs Way. The chalky paths, rolling downs, and neatly mown hay fields reminded me of that beloved childrens' book, The Giant Jam Sandwich, featuring Itching Down, which was not a waspish sort of town, and indeed, the town of Ditchling Beacon is not far away, and there are a few wasps about.
"One hot summer in Itching Down, Four million wasps flew into town..."

The route was rough riding and more than a bit of just pushing when the gravel was too thick and/or the slope too steep.

But in such glorious weather and across such a lovely landscape I wasn't complaining. I got to Charleston in time for lunch in the garden cafe and even though I hadn't booked ahead, I got into a guided tour of the house without having to wait too long.

Artfund is supporting the restoration of the house and garden and the accumulation of relevant art works. The property was rented by Vanessa and Clive Bell. John Maynard Keynes lived at Charleston for a time, while the Woolfs, EM Forster and Lytton Strachey were all frequent visitors. 

The route back to Lewes took me along an A-road for the last bit of the ride and that was the scariest and most difficult part of the trip. Next time I come to England I'll have both a vehicle AND the bike, so I can get to all those places that are off the cycle paths. British roads are just not wide enough for cyclists. 
Photos are not allowed inside the Farmhouse, so this is
copied from a book. The stencilling on the wall has
been redone following the techniques Vanessa used originally.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Indian summer in Sussex

Poor Peter, despite his best efforts (nice tie, crisp white shirt, cheery good morning, Australian flag on the table he'd set just for me) the breakfast at the B&B in Hastings was uninspiring. Toast made from tasteless white bread, served with an equally tasteless egg and utterly tasteless mushrooms and what happened to the bacon, baked beans, tomatoes? A greasy little tasteless sausage and an even more greasy bit of colourless hash browns failed to compensate. I had been looking forward to baked beans too. Oh well. 

I didn't bother repeating the experience on Monday morning and slipped out early for a lovely ride along the beachfront to Bexhill where I was rewarded with the best croissant and coffee this side of the Channel from an unassuming Italian bistro. The English don't get going early. The streets of Bexhill were deserted and the only other cyclists I saw were a couple of kids riding to school. (So galling, they rode past me. But then I had more of a load then them.)

So nice to be exploring the coast of Sussex during an English heatwave - in September! I was lucky to have true Indian Summer weather, with day after day of glorious sunshine and temperatures in the high twenties, even into the thirties a couple of days. Unheard of! The crowds of summer had thinned out, the kids were back at school and there was just a touch of autumn in the air, a thinness in the mornings and a drawing in in the evenings. If you are headed to the UK, after the August Bank Holiday has to be one of the best times to visit. 

From Hastings, the National Cycle Route hugs the coast for quite a while before heading across fields along quiet country lanes lined with blackberries. Happy cycling for most of the morning, but what IS that smell? Pig sties? A few days later I read in the local paper that people were complaining about the fertiliser that farmers had been spreading on the harvested paddocks. They should be ploughing it in as soon as it is spread. If I had to live around there I'd be complaining too. Whew pooh. 

I skirted around Eastbourne and followed the edge of the hills of the South Downs to Lewes which is on the VBH side (very bloody hilly). 
But charming. I would happily live here. There is an old knitting factory that hosts a bunch of craft shops. There are heaps of antique shops and the local brewery still produces a good ale. In fact, it is just nice place to shop; it is worth scrolling this website to whet the appetite.

Talking of whetting, my local pub was a charmer too. 

On the way into town I cycled past the village of Glynde, which has a purpose built opera house situated in the grounds of an English stately home. Glyndebourne. The very name conjures up visions of picnics featuring quail's eggs and foie gras, ice-buckets on the lawns, women in hats picking their way over the grass and men in black tie carrying clinking cases of wine. But the opera season was over. 

Lewes has a castle and the ruins of a priory that was founded in 1078 by the Benedictines and sacked on orders of Henry VIII during the reformation, in a mass destruction called The Dissolution of the Monastries. In its time it was one of the wealthiest and biggest priories in England. 

Lewes' high street has been pedestrianised and the local branch of Waterstones has a cafe with tables that are spread out around the many corners of the historic building that houses the shop. You can sit for hours over a coffee browsing the books at leisure. 

I stayed at Hawthorne Farm, a working farm just outside the town via a dedicated cycle path. With a farm shop and a cafe, it is pretty much heaven, and only two other tents in the field. A loaf of sourdough bread, a box of coleslaw, a local cheddar, some heritage tomatoes and a jar of farm-style yoghurt. Who needs restaurants? 

My neighbour is almost glamping
in his bespoke tipi

Call of the Wild

The bookshops in England are packed with books about the countryside and the natural environment. I guess it is not just a contemporary obsession - think of those Country Diary columns in the newspapers and magazines. First cuckoo of spring heard, bluebells in the woods, squirrels gathering nuts, puddles reflecting the clouds, weeds in the hedgerows, skylarks, cormorants and chestnut trees...

The obsession is sentimental, its nostalgic and my theory is it reflects a common craving for a life more simple, a time without motor vehicles and computers, a keen feeling of the loss of rural rhythms and knowledge of the natural world. There is so little of left so people are turning more and more to writing and art in their attempt to escape the relentlessness  of the modern world. Merry Olde England is a powerful concept, and I suspect its power is increasing rather than waning, even though people know that ideas of rural idyll are just that and it never really existed. And that we are getting further and further detached from nature all the time.

I didn't really find anywhere that was actually quiet. All over Kent and Sussex the nights were full of the noise of planes coming into and leaving Gatwick, and the roar from distant motorways and highways.

The beachfront B&B was probably the quietest place I stayed, but I was still woken by the squeals of boy racers tearing around the streets in the early hours of morning (reminding me of nights in Penang and the Mat Rempits "A Mat Rempit is a Malaysian term for "an individual who participates in immoral activities and public disturbance with a motorcycle as their main transport").

The night skies were full of the lights of planes or other man-made things up there moving across the heavens. Sure, blackberries, nettles and ragwort are trying to claim back the lanes and footpaths, but this is just another sign that human greed and neglect are effectively destroying the green and pleasant land that lives in people's hearts and minds.

A weekend in Hastings

Britain's most epic battle, the Battle of Hastings, was 950 years ago this year. I cruised downhill into Hastings past the crumbling remains of William the Conqueror's castle on a Saturday morning.

In a quiet corner of the Tourist Information Office down on the seafront I was able to plug my phone in and access WiFi. Forecast - rain. I booked into a cycle-friendly B&B at 30 pounds a night.

Hastings is attractive in places but doesn't look like how I imagined from watching Foyles War. It has a new pier and a newish art gallery, the Jerwood Gallery, which has a great collection of modern British art.

My room was up 5 flights of stairs, with my own bathroom in the corridor, a view into the street behind the waterfront and a bed of wire springs. A bit of rearranging of the bedding, and I slept 14 hours straight, completely missing the musical laser light show, iy_project, on the brand new pier; part of the 1066 Festival. Apparently they beamed out an invitation across the Channel to Normandy but I don't know if they got any responses.

Hastings still has a beach-based fishing fleet, just as there was when William the Conqueror landed and claimed England as his own.

The tall black sheds on the beach below the castle are for drying nets. They date back to the 18th century are are Grade II listed and mostly still used, although the shingle has built up and they are now a bit back from the sea.

Along the waterfront in the historic quarter there's a nice little Shipwreck Museum and a Fishermans Museum, both full of artifacts and tales that generate the spirit of the seafaring history of Hastings.

I learned that French was spoken in the courts of England for decades after the Norman Conquest.

There are plenty of fish and chip shops selling cockles, oysters, mussels and smoked haddock. And plenty of noisy Amusement Arcades, Crazy Golf, and ice-cream shops in the best British seaside tradition and best avoided.

There are also lots of weird people. I was warned about three times not to leave my bike unattended for a minute which made me feel a bit paranoid. I chained Betty up right in front of Costa Coffee, where I could keep an eye on her while I indulged in my daily habit. Here's a Costa customer busy pasting stickers into a notebook, as you do.

The beach is gravel rather than sand. Every step across the shingle is noisy. crunch, crunch; and the sound the waves make is delightful - the rolling and tumbling of hundreds of stones. A deckchair costs a quid for half a day. There are warnings that barbeques can be dangerous - hot stones may explode.
The brand new pier

Maybe Foyle is not that far away after all.